Tag Archives: Third level

A welcome mid-term break

Today marks the end of the mid-term break for many of us in the third level sector in Ireland. While a non-teaching week in the middle of term has been a stalwart of secondary schools for many years, the mid-term break only really came to the fore in the Irish third level sector when our universities, Institutes of Technology (IoTs) and other colleges adopted the modern model of 12-week teaching semesters.

Also known as ‘reading week’ in some colleges, the break marks a precious respite in the autumn/winter term. A chance to catch one’s breath, a chance to prepare teaching notes for the rest of term and a chance to catch up on research. Indeed, it is the easiest thing in the world to let the latter slide during the teaching term – only to find that deadlines for funding, book chapters and conference abstracts quietly slipped past while one was trying to keep up with teaching and administration duties.

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A quiet walk in Foxrock on the last day of the mid-term break

Which brings me to a pet peeve. All those years later, teaching loads in the IoT sector remain far too high. Lecturers are typically assigned four teaching modules per semester, a load that may have been reasonable in the early days of teaching to Certificate and Diploma level, but makes little sense in the context of today’s IoT lecturer who may teach several modules at 3rd and 4th year degree level, with typically at least one brand new module each year – all of this whilst simultaneously attempting to keep up the research. It’s a false economy if ever there was one, as many a new staff member, freshly graduated from a top research group, will simply abandon research after a few busy years.

Of course, one might have expected to hear a great deal about this issue in the governments plan to ‘upgrade’ IoTs to technological university status. Actually, I have yet to see any public discussion of a prospective change in the teaching contracts of IoT lecturers – a question of money, no doubt. But this is surely another indication that we are talking about a change in name, rather than substance…

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A festschrift at UCC

One of my favourite academic traditions is the festschrift, a conference convened to honour the contribution of a senior academic. In a sense, it’s academia’s version of an Oscar for lifetime achievement, as scholars from all around the world gather to pay tribute their former mentor, colleague or collaborator.

Festschrifts tend to be very stimulating meetings, as the diverging careers of former students and colleagues typically make for a diverse set of talks. At the same time, there is usually a unifying theme based around the specialism of the professor being honoured.

And so it was at NIALLFEST this week, as many of the great and the good from the world of Einstein’s relativity gathered at University College Cork to pay tribute to Professor Niall O’Murchadha, a theoretical physicist in UCC’s Department of Physics noted internationally for seminal contributions to general relativity.  Some measure of Niall’s influence can be seen from the number of well-known theorists at the conference, including major figures such as Bob WaldBill UnruhEdward Malec and Kip Thorne (the latter was recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contribution to the detection of gravitational waves). The conference website can be found here and the programme is here.

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University College Cork: probably the nicest college campus in Ireland

As expected, we were treated to a series of high-level talks on diverse topics, from black hole collapse to analysis of high-energy jets from active galactic nuclei, from the initial value problem in relativity to the search for dark matter (slides for my own talk can be found here). To pick one highlight, Kip Thorne’s reminiscences of the forty-year search for gravitational waves made for a fascinating presentation, from his description of early designs of the LIGO interferometer to the challenge of getting funding for early prototypes – not to mention his prescient prediction that the most likely chance of success was the detection of a signal from the merger of two black holes.

All in all, a very stimulating conference. Most entertaining of all were the speakers’ recollections of Niall’s working methods and his interaction with students and colleagues over the years. Like a great piano teacher of old, one great professor leaves a legacy of critical thinkers dispersed around their world, and their students in turn inspire the next generation!

 

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Remembering Stephen Hawking

Like many physicists, I woke to some sad news early last Wednesday morning, and to a phoneful of requests from journalists for a soundbyte. In fact, although I bumped into Stephen at various conferences, I only had one significant meeting with him – he was intrigued by my research group’s discovery that Einstein once attempted a steady-state model of the universe. It was a slightly scary but very funny meeting during which his famous sense of humour was fully at play.

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Yours truly talking steady-state cosmology with Stephen Hawking

I recalled the incident in a radio interview with RTE Radio 1 on Wednesday. As I say in the piece, the first words that appeared on Stephen’s screen were “I knew..” My heart sank as I assumed he was about to say “I knew about that manuscript“. But when I had recovered sufficiently to look again, what Stephen was actually saying was “I knew ..your father”. Phew! You can find the podcast here.

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Hawking in conversation with my late father (LHS) and with Ernest Walton (RHS)

RTE TV had a very nice obituary on the Six One News, I have a cameo appearence a few minutes into the piece here.

In my view, few could question Hawking’s brilliant contributions to physics, or his outstanding contribution to the public awareness of science. His legacy also includes the presence of many brilliant young physicists at the University of Cambridge today. However, as I point out in a letter in today’s Irish Times, had Hawking lived in Ireland, he probably would have found it very difficult to acquire government funding for his work. Indeed, he would have found that research into the workings of the universe does not qualify as one of the “strategic research areas” identified by our national funding body, Science Foundation Ireland. I suspect the letter will provoke an angry from certain quarters, but it is tragically true.

Update

The above notwithstanding, it’s important not to overstate the importance of one scientist. Indeed, today’s Sunday Times contains a good example of the dangers of science history being written by journalists. Discussing Stephen’s 1974 work on black holes, Bryan Appleyard states  “The paper in effect launched the next four decades of cutting edge physics. Odd flowers with odd names bloomed in the garden of cosmic speculation – branes, worldsheets , supersymmetry …. and, strangest of all, the colossal tree of string theory”.

What? String theory, supersymmetry and brane theory are all modern theories of particle physics (the study of the world of the very small). While these theories were used to some extent by Stephen in his research in cosmology (the study of the very large), it is ludicrous to suggest that they were launched by his work.

 

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A Night at the Academy Awards

I spent a most enjoyable evening last week at the Royal Irish Academy. Ireland’s premier learned society, the Academy is an all-Ireland body that promotes excellence in the sciences and the humanities, fostering links between ‘the two cultures’. Membership of the Academy is considered a high honour amongst Ireland’s academics, and former members include eminent Irish intellectuals such as William Rowan Hamilton,  Ernest Walton, Seamus Heaney and W.B. Yeats.

I was there to witness the awarding of this year’s  RIA Gold Medals for outstanding research. The medals were presented to Professor Werner Nahm, for his seminal work in theoretical physics and to Professor Desmond Clarke, for his research in the history and philosophy of science in the 17th century.  I was pleased but not surprised at Werner’s award; his research has already been recognized with  several international prizes, not least the famous Planck Medal of the German Physical Society. As Director as the School of Theoretical Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), Werner plays a key role in mathematics and physics in Ireland. (He also has a side interest in the history of science, and was one of the first people I turned to in our studies of unpublished Einstein manuscripts. In fact, Werner recently showed me a hardcopy of a little-known book at DIAS by Albert Einstein, published only in French, with annotation in the margins by the late Eamonn de Valera – all very much in keeping with the interdisciplinary spirit of the Academy!)

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The main conference hall at the Royal Irish Academy

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The library at the Royal Irish Academy

The evening was most enjoyable, with erudite professors of science and the humanities intermingling in the Academy’s beautiful premises on Dawson Street in Dublin – indeed part of the remit of the Academy is the promotion of links between the two disciplines. The ceremony included speeches from Jan O’ Sullivan , our Minister for Education, and  Tom Boland, director of the Higher Education Authority.

One surprise was that the event did not include acceptance speeches by the awardees. This seemed strange, given the prestige of the RIA medals (imagine a Nobel award without the speech). One would have liked to hear the recipients describe their research, thank colleagues, and comment on the challenges of academia. In particular, I thought it was a pity that there was no opportunity for two highly distinguished academics to respond to the speeches of the Minister for Education or the Director of the HEA. For example, I suspect Werner would have liked to comment on the current lack of funding for research in basic science and its impact on the study of mathematics and theoretical physics in Ireland (and on his Institute).  I have never met Professor Clarke, but it would have been most interesting to hear his views on the challenges faced by historians in Ireland.

All in all, a most enjoyable occasion. I was disappointed that the event attracted almost no media coverage afterwards, despite the presence of several press photographers on the night. Perhaps the occasion was deemed too intellectual by news editors –  what is a lifetime’s achievement in academia compared with latest adventures of Roy Keane…

Update

There is a short article describing the event in the Weekend section of The Irish Times. However, it’s easy to miss as there are no  photographs and there doesn’t seem to be an online version.

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Academics and their holidays

Last week, I returned to the snow world for the first time in a long while. The college teaching semester starts on Monday 12th, and I managed to get my corrections done over Christmas, leaving a precious few days over. I had intended going to a conference on relativity and spacetime in Israel, but in the end I decided I was more in need of a few days holiday, not to mention some exercise!
‘Tis well for some,you might say, and indeed it is. For those who can, the week after New Year is a very good time for a snow holiday – cheaper and less crowded (and little danger of being stranded in airports). That said, I recently worked out that, during the teaching semester, I work an average 20 hours unpaid overtime per week in comparison with my previous 9-5 job . This isn’t particularly unusual for an academic involved in research but it’s important to take a break sometime to recharge the batteries.

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The village of Fieberbrunn in Tirol and neighbouring gondola

This year, I bought a last-minute package with Crystalski to Fieberbrunn, a little known resort in Tirol, Austria. The village is only a few kilometres away from the well-known resorts of St Johann and Kitzbuehel, but so far undiscovered by English-speaking tourists. I signed up for a few advanced sessions with the local ski school – skiing is a highly technical sport and one can always learn a great deal from Austrian ski instructors (not to mention hearing some German). Sure enough, we spent several days trying to absorb tips on posture from Ottmar F., a leading free-rider and scarily qualified instructor from these parts. Best of all, the course concentrated on some gentle off-piste skiing, always my weak spot.

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Off-piste with Ottmar- then back to the piste at last

It’s not the easiest of holidays – each day, I would return exhausted to the hotel and spend an hour recuperating in the pool, before doing some study in the evenings. I was happy enough to hand back transceiver and avalanche pack yesterday, that’s enough exercise for a while!
Best of all, I got the guts of my next paper written during the week – an essay on Einstein’s philosophy of cosmology for the upcoming Oxford/Cambridge compendium on the philosophy of cosmology. Not for the first time, I notice that I get more work done when I stay away from the office…

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Freeman Dyson and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies

On Monday, I attended the Statutory Lecture of the School of Theoretical Physics of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). This is an outreach lecture presented annually by DIAS and this year the lecture took place at University College Dublin. Better known abroad than at home, the Institute has a long and distinguished history of world-class research in fundamental areas of physics (see here), so it was entirely appropriate that the statutory lecture was given by Freeman Dyson, renowned physicist and Professor of Physics at the famous Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the college on which DIAS is modeled.

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Freeman Dyson at the DIAS lecture on Monday night  

The title of Freeman’s lecture was  “Are Brains Analog or Digital?” and the abstract is below:

We know that creatures like us have two separate systems for processing information, the genome and the brain. We know that the genome is digital, and we can accurately transcribe our genomes onto digital machines. We cannot transcribe our brains, and the processing of information in our brains is still a great mystery. I will be talking about real brains and real people, asking a question that will have practical consequences when we are able to answer it. I am not able to answer it now. All I can do is to examine the evidence and explain why I consider it probable that the answer will be that brains are analog.

I won’t give more details as Professor Dyson will publish his paper on the subject quite soon. Suffice it to say that tickets for the lecture sold out days in advance and there was quite a buzz on the night. Freeman held the audience spellbound, reading from his paper without the benefit of a single slide.  One could gauge the interest generated from the huge number and variety of questions afterwards. That said, I couldn’t help noticing that the Irish media took no interest whatsoever in the occasion – one wonders if a world-famous  musician or celebrity chef would be similarly ignored.

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Professor Dyson with staff from the School of Theoretical Physics at DIAS: Werner Nahm (Senior Professor and Director ), Arthur Jaffe (Professor of Mathematics at Harvard and Chairman of the board), Freeman Dyson, Vincent Cunnane (Chair of DIAS Council) and Cecil Keaveney (Registrar)

After the lecture, some of us retired to a nearby hotel where Professor Dyson and his wife regaled us with stories from his long and interesting career. Freeman was a close colleague of my late father and was instrumental in bringing Lochlainn and the rest of our family to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton many years ago (after this, Lochlainn returned to Ireland to take up a position at DIAS). So it was great to encounter Professor Dyson once again, this time as an adult! Not to mention that Freeman has fascinating and original views on a wide range of topics; from space travel to climate science, he remains a truly deep and original thinker.

Update

The day after the lecture, staff and friends of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies were treated to a private recital by the well-known Irish pianist Hugh Tinney. The connection is that Hugh’s late mother, Professor Sheila Tinney, was an accomplished mathematician who spent time at Princeton IAS and studied with Professor Dyson (Hugh himself studied maths at Trinity College Dublin before deciding on a career in music and was in the audience for Freeman’s lecture).

It was an extraordinary occasion. Hugh played beautifully and each piece was prefaced with a short discussion of the interface of mind, memory and music. The intimate setting made for one of the most exciting concerts I have experienced, far more fun than a formal venue such as the National Concert Hall. It didn’t hurt that the programme included three of my all-time favourite works, Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight’ Sonata,  Schubert’s G major Impromptu and *that* Nocturne by John Field (no.5 in B flat). The recital also had a special significance for me as it took place in the Organ Room of the Royal Irish Academy of Music, a venue I spent a great deal of time in as a young music student.

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Each piece was prefaced by a discussion of the role of mind in music

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Hugh Tinney presenting his latest CD to Professor Dyson

After the recital, we retired to dinner in a nearby restaurant. As you can imagine, one subject of conversation was the mysterious connection between maths and music. I have heard one explanation for this strange phenomenon: “People who are good at maths are good at most things!”

P.S. A video of Freeman’s lecture is now available on the DIAS website.

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Summer hols; summer school, swimming and that book

You must be finished for the summer? Like most academics, I get asked this question every day in summer, usually by village acquaintances convinced that college closes the day the students finish their exams.

Some lecturers in the Institutes of Technology do indeed take off from June 20th to September 1st; that is their right, given the heavy teaching load during termtime. However, for those of us who try to keep up the research, the summer months are the time to get something done, just like our colleagues in the universities.

For me, this is no chore  – the sheer bliss of being able to do quiet research without classes, meetings, staff interactions and all the rest of it. Very restful. Also, we’re having a serious heatwave in Ireland this month and I’m happy to escape to the cool, quiet office every day. So I plug away happily during the day and treat myself to a swim in my village in the evenings..

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Tide’s in on Lawlor’s Strand in Dunmore East

Actually, I did give some ‘cameo’ lectures this week and last, to our summer school. We have a very nice bunch of engineering, computing and business students visiting from Kiel in Germany, and I had fun trying to condense my climate science course down to a one-hour presentation for each group. I haven’t given short presentations on climate before, it was very satisfying to prepare (see here for a copy of the talk)  The other thing I noticed was that students from the continent always seem to be very mature, polite and interested. I must look into an exchange sometime, do they have Erasmus for staff?

My main task this summer is to finish my little book on cosmology. It’s based on a course I have taught for some years and it’s been a lot of fun to write. Now I’m finding that it’s one thing to write a book and quite another to get it published! Still, I have plenty of time now to be writing book proposals and writing to publishers. In the meantime, I look forward to a swim in the sea everyday after work and a walk into the village. It’s funny to live in a village where others come for summer holidays!

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Tide’s out on Lawlor’s Strand in Dunmore East

Update

Unfortunately it’s so warm, we’re beginning to get quite a few jellyfish. Hope it cools down a little next week!

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